CEO's Corner

State of the SEL Field 2024: Dr. Aaliyah A. Samuel and Dr. Timothy P. Shriver on SEL Then, Now, & Next

May 22, 2024
State of the SEL Field 2024: Dr. Aaliyah A. Samuel and Dr. Timothy P. Shriver on SEL Then, Now, & Next

Key Points:

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  • The field of social and emotional learning (SEL) was born 30 years ago to address a “missing piece” in education. As SEL has grown into a global movement impacting millions of students, the same issues remain critical today: strengthening relationships, closing the trust gap, and supporting our young people’s needs.
  • To continue strengthening the field for the next 30 years, we should expand our focus to larger systems and structures, continue improving educator support and training, and deepen our knowledge of what works, for whom, and under what circumstances.

This year, CASEL is turning the big 3-0! Throughout the year, we’ll be celebrating three decades of social and emotional learning (SEL). We hope you’ll join us as we honor the history of the movement, reflect on where we are now, and set a vision for the future of the field.

As part of our 30th anniversary, CASEL president and CEO Dr. Aaliyah A. Samuel and CASEL board chair Dr. Timothy P. Shriver hosted the 2024 State of the Field webinar, where they discussed the SEL movement “then, now, and next.”

Watch the full webinar below, or read on for key takeaways from the conversation. 


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CASEL began in 1994 at a small conference in New Haven focused on a simple, but powerful idea: What if education fully supported the social, emotional, and academic development of all children? This conference brought together a passionate interdisciplinary group of researchers, educators, practitioners, and child advocates, including Dr. Timothy Shriver. They emerged from their meeting with a name and a mission: Both CASEL and the term “social and emotional learning” were born. Here’s what Shriver had to say about the beginnings of CASEL and the SEL movement:

On Dr. James P. Comer, SEL pioneer

“Dr. Comer came into schools and saw almost intuitively a ‘missing piece’ that wasn’t being addressed. He said the fundamental science of education has to be the cultivating and strengthening of relationships. People talk about content and curriculum, and it’s important. But what he saw was that there was a trust gap between families and schools, children and teachers, even between children and each other. These fissures were the primary ways in which learning was being damaged, and the primary pathways to strengthening learning.”

On Dr. Roger P. Weissberg, CASEL co-founder

“Then [Comer] met Weissberg, who was trying to take practical steps. Roger was investigating concrete ways to learn how to strengthen relationships, and there were colleagues around the country doing similar work. These giants came together. … We had a conviction that these giants were leading us into a giant challenge: How do we create an evidence-based field with the best scholars, educators, practitioners, and policymakers?”

An idea whose time had come

“[SEL] was an idea whose time had come. Whether it had been us or someone else, educators, families, researchers, and political leaders were all looking for this field. All we did in building CASEL and this field was tap into a hunger that was out there.”


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Thirty years after that first conference, where does the field of SEL stand today? 

SEL work continues to be critical today. 

“Just in the last week there were two critical conversations that I was able to participate in. One was around chronic absenteeism rates: Why are so many of our young people still absent from school? The other was a youth summit about the priorities for young people right now. The same themes we saw 30 years ago continue to be at the core of the conversation: strengthening relationships, closing the trust gap, really having systems and policies and support for our young people. The work is more critical now and will continue to be critical as our society changes because of technology, because of the pandemic, and we can go on and on.”—Samuel

Well-established research shows “when we do this work well, it works.”

“The headline here, that’s been reinforced in hundreds of studies across this field, is that when SEL is well-implemented with adequate training, we see improvements in behavior, improvements in mental health, reductions in discipline, and improvements in academics. If we look at the evidence, it says that SEL helps your children feel better, behave better, and learn better–—not just for one moment in time, but for life. … When we do this work well, it works. That’s the most important finding.”—Shriver

We are much more united than divided when it comes to SEL.

“When we talk to parents about what they want, they want their children to be able to make friends, to have an environment where they feel accepted, to have a relationship with their teachers. At the core, we want the same things for our children. … We ought to try as best we can to neutralize political noise and deeply engage parents in this work. If parents have a chance to fully understand what’s being taught and why, the vast majority are going to say yes. If parents see we’re helping children become more empathetic and more engaged in their learning at the same time, most parents are going to go, ‘Yes.’ We need to zone in on the things that make us more alike than different.”—Samuel

“It’s our duty to be in the political conversation that’s inevitable in our country, but not to use political tactics of ‘us vs. them.’ There is an enormous amount of common ground. SEL isn’t going to look the same in every community—and it shouldn’t. It’s okay if you want to put a greater emphasis on one piece of the puzzle over another.”—Shriver


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From a small conference to a global movement impacting millions of students and adults, SEL has come a long way in the last 30 years. But there is still work to be done. How can we continue to strengthen the field and its impact over the next 30 years?

What works, for whom, and under what circumstances?

“One of the critical challenges we face is around quality of implementation. As we think about this, you start to think about all the different questions: Which skills? At which ages? How do we think about the arts, sports, etc., within the overall social fabric of the school? We need more information on the contextual factors that contribute to these programs being effective or less effective. The same thing is true of mathematics or language.”—Shriver

How can we continue to improve educator support and training?

“I recently spoke to a veteran teacher in New York, and she said finally she had the words to use to respond to behaviors. As an educator, you’re managing the behaviors anyway, doing the work anyway. She said she was doing her best, but she didn’t have the formal training to understand how to promote the skills and ensure implementation. If we’re not focusing on supporting the educators, we’re absolutely not going to have the impact we want to have. As we address the chronic absenteeism of students, we’re also seeing the chronic absenteeism of educators matching. Teachers also are burned out. We have to think about those supports.”—Samuel

“SEL is grounded in basic science. For doctors, their training is grounded in the basic science of human anatomy. The basic science of education should be child development. Every educator should have a rigorous grounding in the science of child development. We need our teacher education programs to take seriously preparing educators not just in pedagogy and content, but really critical grounding in the patterns of early childhood, middle childhood, adolescence, and so on. Knowledge of the brain, relationships, cognitive capabilities, and the way children operate throughout the developmental cycle is essential for educator preparation.”—Shriver

How can SEL programs expand their focus to larger systems and structures?

“Many of the [SEL] programs would acknowledge that they have placed a strong emphasis on classrooms, not as much on systems and structures. We need a new generation of ‘program developers’ whose evidence base is not just how things are taught in the classroom, but about systems. We have a big set of questions about school culture and climate that we’re still getting our head around. Is our climate welcoming, inclusive, safe, supportive of personal expression? Does it allow for a sense of agency and empowerment? How do we measure that?”—Shriver

“Classroom environment and what it should look like as we reimagine education is at the forefront of every policy conversation I’ve been a part of. And I would push beyond 9-12 into higher education. There’s a consortium of universities asking how to integrate SEL at a higher-ed level, not just for students, but for families who are preparing to let their children go away to college.”—Samuel

After 30 years, there is no question: this community will rise to the challenges ahead.

“If I were looking for a group of people who could help heal our country, build a new version of our country for the future, lay a new foundation of respect and dignity for every American, I’d say it’s educators. I’d say the people in this field have the greatest power to make a difference for the future of our country.”—Shriver

Watch the full webinar, State of the Field 2024: Accelerating the 30 Year Movement for Social, Emotional, and Academic Learning.

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